Dr. John Nash Ott

Gazette Article by: Beth Anaclerio
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2002

We have all seen the film, a flower blooming, wilting and dying; a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis; a pumpkin growing from a seed to a magical carriage. Time lapse photography allows our eyes to see in a few seconds an event that may have taken hours or even days to unfold. Winnetkan John Nash Ott was responsible for developing this technology.

Dr. Ott brought national attention to the Village in 1956 when, after 20 years as a successful Chicago banker, he turned a life-time hobby of time-lapse photography into a full-time career in photobiology. Intrigued by the relationship of light waves to plant growth patterns, Dr. Ott built a plastic-walled greenhouse in the backyard of his Hibbard Road home to experiment with an impressive array of photographic lights, set to turn on and off automatically for each time-lapse frame. He was astounded to learn that he could not successfully grow plants indoors under common artificial lighting. Rather, a full spectrum of light was necessary for plants to thrive.

His work captured the attention of another video pioneer, Walt Disney, who asked Dr. Ott to create the time-lapse photography for the Disney nature series The Secrets of Life. This film showed a fascinating marriage of motion picture and music with penguins, tropical fish and lilies dancing to the strains of Strauss.

Even the magical growth of a royal carriage from a pumpkin seed could not have been created without the contributions of Dr. Ott. It was his discovery that revealed the importance of the proper light for the stubborn pumpkin vine. It would produce only all male or all female flowers, depending on the type of light it received and then die before reaching maturation. But with a full spectrum of light, Ott was able to create the seemingly instantaneous growth of a pumpkin seed to a full-grown pumpkin. Perhaps it is safe to say that it was actually Dr. John Ott that secured Cinderella’s transport to the ball – he was a fairy godfather of sorts.

In time, Ott turned his attention towards monitoring the beneficial effects of full spectrum lighting on certain human physiological conditions. He went on to develop the first full spectrum florescent tube which he called Vitalite and which is now referred to as the Ott Bulb.

During this period, Bob Greene told a story about John Nash Ott and the impact he had on the game of baseball. Having relocated to Sarasota, Florida, in the early 1970s, it was reported that Cincinnati Reds’ scout Rex Bowen sought out Dr. Ott with a question about baseball caps. Bowen described that the underside of the visor worn by major league players was traditionally green. Dr. Ott concluded that the green color could hamper the players’ performance and that the underside should be gray. Rex Bowen was apparently able to persuade the Reds’ management to switch the color to gray as Dr. Ott recommended. Soon, the sluggish Reds perked up and went on to win the National League pennant. Was it the change in cap visor color or the Reds’ roster, including future Hall of Fame members Johnny Bench and Sparky Anderson? Winnetkans would say it was all thanks to Dr. John Nash Ott – a member of our hometown Hall of Fame.

In 1988, Dr. Ott licensed the use of his patented technology to OTT Light Systems, Inc., www.ottbiolight.com)

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